Albemarle panel briefed on natural resources

The Albemarle Planning Commission got into the details of the Comprehensive Plan update Tuesday with a work session on the county’s natural resources and rural areas.

“We’re starting to get closer to the right form to make it more readable,” Commissioner Don Franco said.
Since 1980, the county has sought to discourage people moving to the rural areas, which make up 95 percent of Albemarle’s 726 square miles
Over the past 10 years, an average of 215 new homes have been built annually in Albemarle’s rural area.
“These might be people which the Development Areas could never attract, regardless of amenities and quality of development,” reads the draft updated chapter of the plan.
However, despite the goal of limiting new development, there is the potential for about 45,000 new lots in the rural areas and staff is concerned that will hurt conservation efforts.
Scott Clark, the county’s rural areas planner, said more fragmented landscapes make it harder to protect natural resources.
“When you disturb core habitats, you don’t just lose the piece that you disturb, you change the character of the surrounding areas,” Clark said.
The new plan will also include language that speaks to the importance of complying with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate looming over Virginia and other states.
“The water exiting our county must contribute to better water health in the Chesapeake Bay,” Clark said.
Elaine Echols, the county’s principal planner, said the plan also contains stronger language to address stormwater, including the consideration of adopting a utility fee to cover the cost of new infrastructure to improve the quality of water from severe rainstorms.
“This was just something that needed to be put front and center in the plan,” Echols said. “The emphasis is on well-enforced county regulations.”
The plan for the first time will include performance measurements to help gauge progress of whether the goals of the plan are being met. However, staff said they did not yet have details to show to the commission.
“It’s difficult to come up with performance measurements because we’re just now getting baseline information,” Echols said.
Commissioner Richard Randolph suggested the county should incentivize landowners to take steps to protect water quality rather than rely on regulations or authoritative powers from the county.
“If we don’t have buy-in from property owners, in five years we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said.
Clark said one example of an incentive could be the resumption of a program to help landowners plant stream buffers.
“They would pay half and we would pay half,” Clark said. However, the program was discontinued when a grant used to pay for it ran out.
“I’m really excited that we’re adding [performance measurements],” said Commissioner Bruce Dotson.
However, when he asked for an annual report to track the metrics, one planning official said that might not be possible due to budget cuts.
“It is a way to give you the true status of how we’ve done year to year,” said Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning. However, he said the department stopped that practice in 2003.
During the public comment period, representatives of two advocacy groups disagreed about the use of the word “biodiversity” in the draft plan.
Staff is recommending that the Comprehensive Plan update contain language to protect biological diversity and to update the work of groups that have taken an inventory of the county’s resources.
Tom Olivier, of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, said he was taken aback that efforts by the Natural Heritage Commission were not explicitly listed in the chapter.
“The draft chapter makes no mention of the June 2007 NHC report to the Board of Supervisors that identified 22,000 of acres and six areas where the county should immediately promote biodiversity,” Olivier said. “The NHC was on the brink of developing a plan but our staff resources were cut.”
However, Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum argued for the elimination of the word “biodiversity” from the plan altogether.
“On the county’s website it states that the NHC is there to restore the county’s native biological diversity,” Williamson said. “That’s a heck of a mission statement for an appointed group.”
Williamson added that the work of the NHC is a backdoor to population control and that acting on their advice would restrict property rights.
Randolph and Dotson both said they wanted to put something in the plan referring to efforts to work with the city to preserve the Rivanna River corridor as a destination for both Albemarle and Charlottesville.
“We do recommend that planning go on [but] there is an understandable tension between the kind of development appropriate in a river corridor that will enhance the water quality while also making it a destination,” said Leslie Middleton, executive director of the Rivanna River Basin Commission.